Skip to main content

How are Organs Transported for Transplant?

We’ve all seen the infamous cooler on television or movies carrying an organ ready to save another person’s life. But how do organs truly get packed and transported to the person waiting for a life-saving transplant?

The clock is the enemy in transplantation. The transportation of organs for transplant requires seamless coordination between the donor hospital, the Organ Procurement Organization (OPO), and the recipient(s) transplant surgeons. LifeSource successfully coordinates this process thousands of times every year.

Organ Recovery

After a person has met medical criteria to become an organ donor and authorization has been given to move forward with the donation process, the organs are maintained on artificial support (machines keep oxygenated blood flowing to the organs). During this time, the search for matching recipients is under way [link to Wait List post] and the condition of each organ is carefully monitored by a LifeSource donation coordinator.

Organs that can be recovered for transplant include: heart, lungs, kidney, liver, pancreas and intestine. Every donor is different, some may be able to give one or two life-saving gifts and others may be able to give more – every gift is important because it saves lives.

The medical team who worked to save the patient’s life and the transplant team are never the same team. In most cases, when an organ recovery occurs, a surgical team from the recipient’s transplant hospitals accepting the life-saving gifts on behalf of the recipient will travel to the donor hospital, recover the organs and transport them to waiting recipients. Organ recoveries are medical procedures and always occur in operating rooms.

Organ Transport

LifeSource coordinates the transportation of transplant surgeons and the life-saving gifts they have recovered. Transportation often depends on the distance involved and can include ambulances, helicopters and airplanes. Once organs are recovered from donors, they will only remain healthy for a short period of time, so every minute counts.

Approximately, how long can organs remain viable outside the body?

  • Heart: 4-6 hours
  • Lungs: 4-6 hours
  • Liver: 8-12 hours
  • Intestines: 8-16 hours
  • Pancreas: 12-18 hours
  • Kidney: 24-36 hours

The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) has strict regulatory requirements when it comes to preservation and packaging of all transplantable organs. Each organ is carefully preserved using special solutions, packed on ice, and for some organs -currently lungs and kidneys- put on machines for transportation. There is also a specific process in place to ensure that each organ is labeled appropriately. All organs being transported and all documentation is scanned before leaving the hospital and scanned again once it arrives at its destination.